Miriam Hansen RIP

News has come through of the death of Professor Miriam Hansen (1949-2011) of the University of Chicago. Hansen was one of the outstanding scholars investigating the silent film period, whose book Babel & Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (1991) bids fair to be the most influential and most cited work in the field. Hansen’s subject was spectatorship and the public sphere: she investigated early film in pursuit of that mysterious point at which film becomes aware of its viewers. Her book introduces the challenge involved by reference to the Corbett-Fitzimmons boxing film of 1897 and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik three decades later. Both had strong appeal for women audiences, but while the latter consciously anticipated the gaze of a female spectator, the former only encouraged such viewers by accident. At what point did the change come?

When, how, and to what effect does the cinema conceive of the spectator as a textual term, as the hypothetical point of address of filmic discourse? And once such strategies have been codified, what happens to the viewer as a member of a plural, social audience?

These questions go to the heart of what makes early cinema such a fascinating subject, because in attempting to answer them we see how central cinema was to a change in consciousness – specificially change in the balance between what scholars like to refer to as the private and the public sphere.

Illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanies an article by Mary Heaton Vorse, ‘Some Moving Picture Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

Miriam Hansen was a great deal more than a one-book woman. Her first book was on Ezra Pound, and she wrote variously on German, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese cinema, on popular culture, film theory, and social theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Jürgen Habermas. However it was Babel and Babylon that established her huge reputation, and it has to be the academic dream, to write the one book that changes the way people think.

It’s not a book for the general film enthusiast; indeed there has been many a general enthusiast who has been quite alarmed by it. But read it closely and you’ll find a book of great humanity underneath the dense argument. Hansen’s great achievement was to take the subject of spectatorship, and to show that behind that abstract notion of an idealised viewer, seemingly at the mercy of the ideological predilections of the cinema, there were far more complex forces at work. She showed how important it was to have an understanding of the social history of the early cinema period, allowing for a richer, more various understanding characterised by gender, class, ethnicity and locality. It was her great knowledge of early American cinema in all its forms that made her work so persuasive, and so lasting. She has died too young, and the loss felt will be great. But her ideas have helped ensure that early cinema remains a vital subject for intellectual discovery for many years to come.

Continuous performance


Continuous Performance: Going to the Cinema a Hundred Years Ago is an exhibition marking the centenary of cinema-going in Britain. Well, we can argue the point whether 1909-2009 is any real sort of centenary, since pedants like me would point to the first British cinemas having appeared in London in 1906 (specifically, the Daily Bioscope opposite Liverpool Street Station gets my vote as cinema no. 1), but 1909 was undoubtedly the year when the phenomenon undoubtedly took off in a huge way and started to make such a great impact upon society.


The exhibition is taking place at the Templeman Library, University of Kent, Canterbury, as part of the Canterbury Festival. The exhibition celebrates the first film shows and their audiences through cameras, projectors, books, photographs, fan magazines, and other ephemera from the early years of the cinema. The exhibition has been put together by Dr Nicholas Hiley, head of the university’s world-renowned British Cartoon Archive and a great collector of early cinema apparatus and memorabilia. The Bioscope plans to visit the exhibition soon and to review it in detail, but as that may take a week or two as yet, do note that it is open Friday 2 Oct – Friday 6 Nov, Mon-Fri 8.45am – 10pm, Sat-Sun 12pm – 7pm. Admission is free, and you get to visit the fair city of Canterbury into the bargain.

Tell me Grandpa


It’s been quite a while since we have an extract from one of the memoirs of early cinema-going that I like to collect. So here’s something from Josef Morrell’s Tell Me Grandpa, published in 1981. Morrelwas born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham, London. His memoirs cover the period from pre-war to the 1920s, and includes this really well-observed sequence on the child’s experience of the early cinema. Although what he recalls tooks place in the 1910s, I’m struck with how much something like this remained the experience of children’s cinema for decades afterwards. Certainly anyone like me who can remember children’s Saturday morning film shows in the (late) 1960s and early 70s (when they died out in the UK) should recognise the happy blend of anarchy and enthalment at the thrills and spills on the screen:

However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

‘Elmo the Mighty’ is Elmo Lincoln, who would become the cinema screen’s first Tarzan.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Goldman concludes with an interesting insight into the difference between the child’s and the adult’s cinema-going experience, indicating the way in which cinema had moved from its earlier, rumbustious state to an ordered world where social pressures demanded conformity.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

A delightful piece, I hope you’ll agree, evocative and informative.

Lessons from Toledo

There has been quite an on-rush of new material appearing on the Internet Archive, some of it relating to our subject and period, and I’ll be working my way through selected titles and adding them to the Bioscope Library. First up is the Reverend John J. Phelan’s Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919). This is another example of a social survey driven by moral concerns rather than social science itself, and the distaste implied by the book’s title is reinforced by these lines from its introduction:

Students of social science are in quite general agreement as to the necessity of community control
of public commercialized amusements.

And yet there is rather more to this study than disdainful suspicion of popular taste for the movies. To begin with, Phelan recognises the virtues, listing these key advantages that motion pictures offered society:

1. The providing of a reasonable-priced and highly entertaining form of amusement.
2. Convenience both as to accessibility and continuous play hours.
3. The promotion of family unity – as seen in attendance of the entire family.
4. The counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement.
5. A provision for amusement and relaxation.
6. The supplying of information in regard to travel, history and world events.
7. The treatise of high moral and educational themes.
8. The movies as an “art.”

So, while Phelan feels that the movies may appeal to those “who feed their nature upon the abnormal, distorted, suggestive and far too often, vicious things of life”, he feels that they are capable of “moral and educational worth”. But what makes his study valuable for us is that he wants to back up his understanding of motion pictures with empirical data.

Using Toledo as his subject, Phelan tells the number, type, size, location, ownership and function of the different cinemas in his town (there were six in 1919). He tells us of their proximity to other forms of commercialised amusements (saloons, dance halls etc.). We learn of their value, the rental fees charge, and the cost of machinery, fabric, employees, musicians, advertising, lighting and heating. He supplies figures on the composition of audiences, prices of admission, and the construction of cinema programmes. We learn what it cost to invest in the cinema business, the operating expenses and the revenue. This is all very useful data.

Phelan provides evidence of studies conducted at individual schools. There is a long list of suitable educational films, by itself an illuminating guide to how this new branch of the film business was starting to blossom. There is plenty on the moral issues, censorship and the hoped-for attractions of “non-commercialized” amusements valiantly fighting their losing battle against the irresistible attraction of the screen. Intriguingly, Phelan ends each section of the book with a series of questions for other “social studies” students, indicating the sort of things they should be asking of their own territories should they intend to conduct similar surveys.

The book concludes with substantial appendices. These includes a valuable bibliography; examples of relevant legislation; a list of all Ohio cinemas with owners, managers, seating, location and number of employees; sample questionnaires; sample testimony from juvenile courts; and much more. Beyond the moralising, this is study with a great deal of practical information to inform a particular study of American film-going in 1919 – well worth investigating further.

Hollywood in Berlin

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a welcome example of a modern film scholarship text made freely available online. Thomas J. Saunders’ study, Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany, looks at the American film in Germany during the Weimar period. German films of the 1920s have been much championed and studied, in part as alternatives to American films of the period, but the focus here is on the considerable impact American comedies, serials, society dramas and historical epics had in Germany, and the debates they occasioned on the influence of cinema and the perils of Americanisation. Films covered include The Ten Comandments, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ben Hur and Greed, and the image and impact of Jackie Coogan, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Chaplin, Keaton and ‘slapstick’ in general. The book therefore looks at cultural and industrial relations between Germany and America in 1920s, through the prism of popular cinema, bringing together economic history, reception studies, film studies and social history.

The book has been published online in chapterised, word-searchable, web form as one of the California Digital Library’s eScholarship Editions, a welcome initiative to make sample scholarly text freely available online to demonstrate its range of publications. Another example from the same source, already in the Library, is Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. Academic publishers, where they are rich enough to do so, are increasingly experimenting with multi-platform strategies, making texts available in print, online by subscription or to a restricted group (many of the eScholarship Editions are available only to University of California staff and students), and a few titles (or sample chapters) available free to the public. It breaks down barriers, demonstrates the flexibility of text, encourages discovery. More such forward-thinking initiatives, please.

(I’m not a) juvenile delinquent

In the last post, on the Lynds’ Middletown, there was a footnote reference to Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent. That 1925 text has now also gone into the Bioscope Library. This renowned study of the phenomenon of youth crime (source of the illustration, left) was an early work of British psychologist, Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971). Burt is best known for his work in educational psychology, and is controversial for his ideas on heredity and intelligence, and for possibly having falsified some of his research data.

Such debates are the concerns of others; our interest is in his book The Young Delinquent, and its sections on cinema. One gets a clear idea of cinema’s place in the scheme of things in the contents listing, where under ‘Environmental Conditions’ one finds cinema listed alongside betting and gambling as evidence of ‘Excessive facilities for amusement’. Cinema is not blamed of itself for juvenile crime, but is seen as part of a milieu where crime was likely to flourish. Consequently, Burt has several references to the part cinema played in the lives of the young who were associated with crime. He begins thus:

The Cinema. One feature among the attractions of every town and suburb a feature already mentioned more than once demands discussion at some length. The cinema, like the ‘penny dreadful’ before the advent of the film, has been freely censured and abused for stimulating the young adventurer to mischief, folly, and even crime. Among those who criticize it on this ground, the most credible are teachers of wide experience and magistrates of high standing; but perhaps none is so eager to advocate this view as the young culprit himself, who frequently sees, or thinks he sees, in such a derivation of his deeds a chance to deflect blame and attention from his own moral laxity to that of the producer of films.

Burt identifies three ways in which he finds that ‘the power of pictures is harmfully exerted’, two of which he holds to be unusual and over-emphasised, the third to be the more serious yet less remarked upon. The first of unusual circumstances is the child who imitated crimes it had seen on the screen. This rather ludicrous assertion had exercised the minds of authorities for several years – indeed, it still does, as we are repeatedly warned of harmful imitative behaviour after watching violent or crime-oriented films, without so much as a shred of real evidence to prove any connection between the two. Burt writes:

On sifting the evidence adduced by those who express these fears, it is plain that both their inferences and their psychological assumptions are by no means free from fallacy. Nor are their facts better founded. They have between them hardly one well-attested instance from their own first-hand knowledge, hardly a single analysed case to put forward in proof. That certain children at certain ages are highly suggestible and imitative, I am far from wishing to dispute; and, beyond doubt, the peculiar conditions of cinematographic reproduction heighten this natural susceptibility still further by artificial means. The darkened hall, the atmosphere of crowd-excitement, the concrete vividness of visual presentation, the added realism due to movement and to the play of facial change, and, above everything, the intensely sensational character of the emotional scenes portrayed all are calculated to increase the child’s suggestibility, and to stamp upon the impressionable mind graphic images and lasting recollections. Mental pictures, so deeply imprinted, may sometimes issue in obsessions haunting and irrepressible recurrent thoughts and impulses bound from their very persistence and strength to work themselves out by action. All this is not to be denied. Yet, of the ensuing acts, how much is crime? Most of the characters and situations rehearsed by film-smitten children are as innocent as those of any other piece of childish make-believe. Who has not seen street-urchins mimicking Charlie Chaplin, holding each other ‘up’ with toy pistols, or masquerading in the feathers of Red Indians or the wide-awake hats of cowboys, every flaunted detail manifestly picked from the romances of the film? Even where the model is a heroic pirate or bandit chief an Arsene Lupin or a Long John Silver the adventures themselves may be as innocuous as those of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The direct reproduction of serious film-crimes is, in my experience, exceedingly uncommon: and, even then, it is usually the criminal’s method rather than the criminal’s aim that is borrowed: the nefarious impulses themselves have been demonstrably in existence beforehand.

Burt found only four or five incidents where a child, ‘dull or defective’, had commited a crime directly inspired by the cinema.

The second unusual circumstance was that cinema provided ‘a standing temptation to steal money for admittance’: that is, that its very desirability among the young was a cause of criminiality. Burt argues, however, that the temptation to steal should be seen a separate from what such money might be spent on; that is, the child stole the money first, then considered the best way in which to spend it. Cinema was, in this instance, only an indirect, not a direct cause of such criminality. Moreover, as he argues:

the temperament of the typical thief is just the temperament to which the sensations of the picture-house appeal most strongly; he comes from just the dreary, comfortless home which makes the cinema almost his sole means for mirth and amusement; hence, the union of the two habits the habit of stealing and the habit of picture-going a coincidence rightly observed to be significantly frequent, is not so much a matter of effect and cause; it is the double by-product of a deeper common source: the underlying adventurous nature of the child, for which his humdrum life affords no satisfying outlet, animates and penetrates them both. The attraction of the cinema, therefore, can be counted as a direct incentive, only where the child has acquired an over powering habit, an inveterate taste and craving, for that particular form of diversion.

For Burt, the ‘main source of harm’ was not these two common complaints, but was one of ‘moral atmosphere’:

Throughout the usual picture-palace programme, the moral atmosphere presented is an atmosphere of thoughtless frivolity and fun, relieved only by some sudden storm of passion with occasional splashes of sentiment. Deceit, flirtation, and jealousy, unscrupulous intrigue and reckless assault, a round of unceasing excitement and the extremes of wild emotionalism, are depicted as the normal characteristics of the everyday conduct of adults. The child, with no background of experience by which to correct the picture, frames a notion, altogether distorted, of social life and manners. The villain or the vampire, though outwitted in the end, has nevertheless to be portrayed with a halo of fictitious glamour, or interest would flag: he does wrong things; but he does them in a smart way, with daring, gallantry, and wit. It is true that, in most of the plays, the scoundrel is infallibly unmasked and eventually requited. But the hollow and factitious character of this pseudo-poetic justice seldom deludes the most youthful spectator.

For Burt, those very qualities of cinema that could be argued to be its greatest virtues – namely, its appeal to the imagination and the encouragement of fantasies – are to be seen as its leading vices, at least for the unbred young.

They provide models and material for all-engrossing day-dreams; and create a yearning for a life of gaiety a craze for fun, frolic, and adventure, for personal admiration and for extravagant self-display to a degree that is usually unwholesome and almost invariably unwise.

This is so sad to read. How can anyone condemn something that promised ‘fun, frolic and adventure’, and for a section of society largely denied such pleasures from any other quarter? In the end, though, Burt at least comes to a sense of proportion. He concludes:

When all is said, however, it is easy to over-blame the cinema, to exaggerate the actual harm and ignore the possible good. It is clear that, in comparison with the incalculable number of films that are manufactured and released, the offences resulting are infinitesimally few. The victims are almost wholly those who, temperamentally or otherwise, are already disposed to anti-social conduct; and the cinema can do little more than feed and fan the latent spark?

The Young Delinquent inevitably tells us more about the prevailing attitudes of the moral authorities rather than the youth themselves. It is interesting for what it reveals of the fear of youth crime in period earlier than we might normally expect, and for the association many made between cinema and delinquency. Interestingly, Burt ultimately does not put the ‘blame’ on heredity, the theme of his later work, but on environment. Cinema was a common feature of ‘low’ environments; it was therefore damned by geographical association.

The Young Delinquent is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (38MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (1.5MB) formats.

For earlier (1917) anxieties about the connection between cinema and crime, see last year’s post on The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities, the deeply-biased but highly recommended report from the National Council of Public Morals (what a name!), also available from the Internet Archive. For a fine social history of the young from 1875 to 1945, with much on the association in the public mind between youth, anti-social behaviour and cinema, see Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth, recently out in paperback. For a summary of Cyril Burt’s work, and the ongoing controveries surrounding him, see Indiana University’s Human Intelligence site.

Movies in Middletown

Muncie, Indiana, from the Centre for Middletown Studies, http://www.bsu.edu/middletown

Usually when the Bioscope comes across interesting and relevant texts on silent cinema which are freely available online, they get described and placed for future reference in the Bioscope Library. In the case of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, the main body of the book has relatively little to do with cinema per se, but it has three or pages of real interest to us, so I’m reproducing the entirety of that text here (while still putting it in the Library).

Middletown is a classic sociological study, published in 1929 (with a sequel, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937). ‘Middletown’ was the name the Lynds gave to an archetypal small American city, which could be looked upon as a model example by which to examine sociological trends. The city chosen was Muncie, Indiana, population 38,000 at the time of the study, which began in 1924 and looked at changes undergone in this small Midwestern city between 1890 and 1925. Middletown was instantly recognised as a classic study, and it has enjoyed enduring influence and popularity down to the present day.

The Lynds studied Middletown under six main social activies: Getting a living, Making a home, Training the young, Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on, Engaging in religious practices, Engaging in community activities. In the area of leisure time, their main thesis was that time for leisure had increased, but that much of this new leisure time was spent on ‘passive’ recreations, such as the cinema. The evidence presented on the place of cinema in America in the mid-1920s is rich in interest and meticulously-researched detail. One may feel a little uneasy at the mass audience being examined under the microscope like this, but there is also a heartening sense of that audience delighting in an entertainment that belonged to all, untroubled by those dwindling forces in society that might wish to clean up or close down its simple joys.

Here’s the relevant text, with the footnote numbers in square brackets and the notes themselves following after the main text:

Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. To be sure, the spectacle-watching habit was strong upon Middletown in the nineties. Whenever they had a chance people turned out to a “show,” but chances were relatively fewer. Fourteen times during January, 1890, for instance, the Opera House was opened for performances ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Black Crook, before the paper announced that “there will not be any more attractions at the Opera House for nearly two weeks.” In July there were no “attractions”; a half dozen were scattered through August and September; there were twelve in October.[17]

Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter; four of the nine give three different programs a week, the other five having two a week; thus twenty-two different programs with a total of over 300 performances are available to Middletown every week in the year. In addition, during January, 1923, there were three plays in Middletown and four motion pictures in other places than the regular, theaters, in July three plays and one additional movie, in October two plays and one movie.

About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December.[18] Of 395 boys and 457 girls in the three upper years of the high school who stated how many times they had attended the movies in “the last seven days,” a characteristic week in mid-November, 30 per cent, of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls had not attended, 31 and 29 per cent, respectively had been only once, 22 and 21 per cent, respectively two times, 10 and 7 per cent, three times, and 7 and 4 per cent, four or more times. According to the housewives interviewed regarding the custom in their own families, in three of the forty business class families interviewed and in thirty-eight of the 122 working class families no member “goes at all” to the movies.[19] One family in ten in each group goes as an entire family once a week or oftener; the two parents go together without their children once a week or oftener in four business class families (one in ten), and in two working class families (one in sixty); in fifteen business class families and in thirty-eight working class families the children were said by their mothers to go without their parents one or more times weekly.

In short, the frequency of movie attendance of high school boys and girls is about equal, business class families tend to go more often than do working class families, and children of both groups attend more often without their parents than do all the individuals or other combinations of family members put together. The decentralizing tendency of the movies upon the family, suggested by this last, is further indicated by the fact that only 21 per cent, of 337 boys and 33 per cent of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school go to the movies more often with their parents than without them. On the other hand, the comment is frequently heard in Middletown that movies have cut into lodge attendance, and it is probable that time formerly spent in lodges, saloons, and unions is now being spent in part at the movies, at least occasionally with other members of the family. [20] Like the automobile and radio, the movies, by breaking up leisure time into an individual, family, or small group affair, represent a counter movement to the trend toward organization so marked in clubs and other leisure-time pursuits.

How is life being quickened by the movies for the youngsters who bulk so large in the audiences, for the punch press operator at the end of his working day, for the wife who goes to a “picture” every week or so “while he stays home with the children,” for those business class families who habitually attend?

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go,” Middletown reads in a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. “Before you know it you are living the story laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening escape!”

The program of the five cheaper houses is usually a “Wild West” feature, and a comedy; of the four better houses, one feature film, usually a “society” film but frequently Wild West or comedy, one short comedy, or if the feature is a comedy, an educational film (e.g., Laying an Ocean Cable or Making a Telephone), and a news film. In general, people do not go to the movies to be instructed; the Yale Press series of historical films, as noted earlier, were a flat failure and the local exhibitor discontinued them after the second picture. As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingenue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingenue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”

Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “Alimony – brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “Married Flirts – Husbands: Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives: What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts.” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give, and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “Name the Man – a story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. [21] While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week. Young Middletown enters eagerly into the vivid experience of Flaming Youth: “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers, by an author who didn’t dare sign his name; the truth bold, naked, sensational” – so ran the press advertisement under the spell of the powerful conditioning medium of pictures presented with music and all possible heightening of the emotional content, and the added factor of sharing this experience with a “date” in a darkened room. Meanwhile, Down to the Sea in Ships, a costly spectacle of whaling adventure, failed at the leading theater “because,” the exhibitor explained, “the whale is really the hero in the film and there wasn’t enough ‘heart interest’ for the women,”

Over against these spectacles which Middletown watches today stand the pale “sensations” of the nineties, when Sappho was the apogee of daring at the Opera House: “The Telephone Girl – Hurricane hits, breezy dialogue, gorgeous stage setting, dazzling dancing, spirited repartee, superb music, opulent costumes.” Over the Garden Wall, Edith’s Burglar, East Lynne, La Belle Maria, or Women’s Revenge, The Convict’s Daughter, Joe, a Mountain Fairy, The Vagabond Heroine, Guilty Without Crime, The World Against Her (which the baker pronounced in his diary, “good, but too solemn”), Love Will Find a Way, Si. Plankard. These, it must be recalled, were the great days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with “fifty men, women, and children, a pack of genuine bloodhounds, grandest street parade ever given, and two bands,” packed the Opera House to capacity.

Actual changes of habits resulting from the week-after-week witnessing of these films can only be inferred. Young Middletown is finding discussion of problems of mating in this new agency that boasts in large illustrated advertisements, “Girls! You will learn how to handle ’em!” and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures, see — .”

“Sheiks and their ‘shebas,'” according to the press account of the Sunday opening of one film,” … sat without a movement or a whisper through the presentation … It was a real exhibition of love-making and the youths and maidens of [Middletown] who thought that they knew something about the art found that they still had a great deal to learn.”

Some high school teachers are convinced that the movies are a powerful factor in bringing about the “early sophistication” of the young and the relaxing of social taboos. One workingclass mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, [22] believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to the witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. While the community attempts to safeguard its schools from commercially intent private hands, this powerful new educational instrument, which has taken Middletown unawares, remains in the hands of a group of men – AN ex-peanut-stand proprietor, an ex-bicycle racer and race promoter, and so on – Whose primary concern is making money.[23]

Middletown in 1890 was not hesitant in criticizing poor shows at the Opera House. The “morning after” reviews of 1890 bristle with frank adjectives: “Their version of the play is incomplete. Their scenery is limited to one drop. The women are ancient, the costumes dingy and old. Outside of a few specialties, the show was very ‘bum.’ When Sappho struck town in 1900, the press roasted it roundly, concluding, “[Middletown] has had enough of naughtiness of the stage … Manager W – will do well to fumigate his pretty playhouse before one of the dean, instructive, entertaining plays he has billed comes before the footlights.” The newspapers of today keep their hands off the movies, save for running free publicity stories and cuts furnished by the exhibitors who advertise. Save for some efforts among certain of the women’s clubs to “clean up the movies” and the opposition of the Ministerial Association to “Sunday movies,” Middletown appears content in the main to take the movies at their face value “a darned good show” and largely disregard their educational or habit-forming aspects.


17. Exact counts were made for only January, July, and October. There were less than 125 performances, including: matinees, for the entire year.

18. These figures are rough estimates based upon the following data: The total Federal amusement tax paid by Middletown theaters in July was $3002.04 and in December $4,781.47. The average tax paid per admission is about $0.0325, and the population in 1923 about 38,000. Attendance estimates secured in this way were raised by one-sixth to account for children under twelve who are tax-free. The proprietor of three representative houses said that he had seven admissions over twelve years to one aged twelve or less, and the proprietor of another house drawing many children has four over twelve to one aged twelve or less.

These attendance figures include, however, farmers and others from outlying districts.

19. The question was asked in terms of frequency of attendance “in an average month” and was checked in each case by attendance during the month just past.

Lack of money and young children needing care in the home are probably two factors influencing these families that do not attend at all; of the forty-one working class families in which all the children are twelve years or under, eighteen never go to the movies, while of the eighty-one working class families in which one or more of the children is twelve or older, only twenty reported that no member of the family ever attends.

“I haven’t been anywhere in two years,” said a working class wife of thirty-three, the mother of six children, the youngest twenty months. “I went to the movies once two years ago. I was over to see Mrs. — and she says, ‘Come on, let’s go to the movies.’ I didn’t believe her. She is always
ragging the men and I thought she was joking. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘put your things on and we’ll see a show.’ I thought, well, if she wanted to rag the men, I’d help her, so I got up and put my things on. And, you know, she really meant it. She paid my carfare uptown and paid my way into the movies. I was never so surprised in my life. I haven’t been anywhere since.”

20. Cf . N. 10 above. The ex-proprietor of one of the largest saloons in the city said, “The movies killed the saloon. They cut our business in half overnight.”

21. It happens frequently that the title overplays the element of “sex adventure” in a picture. On the other hand, films less luridly advertised frequently portray more “raw situations.”

22. cf. Ch. XI.

Miriam Van Waters, referee of the juvenile court of Los Angeles and author of Youth in Conflict, says in a review of Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent: “The cinema is recognized for what it is, the main source of excitement and of moral education for city children. Burt finds that only mental defectives take the movies seriously enough Jo imitate the criminal exploits portrayed therein, and only a small proportion of thefts can be traced to stealing to gain money for admittance. In no such direct way does the moving picture commonly demoralize youth. It is in the subtle way of picturing the standards of adult life, action and emotion, cheapening, debasing, distorting adults until they appear in the eyes of the young people perpetually bathed in a moral atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, wild emotionalism, and cheap sentimentality. Burt realizes that these exhibitions stimulate children prematurely.” (The Survey, April 15, 1926.)

23. One exhibitor in Middletown is a college-trained man interested in bringing “good films” to the city. He, like the others, however, is caught in fthe competitive game and matches his competitors’ sensational advertisements.

Middletown is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (30MB), PDF (33MB) and TXT (1.3MB) formats. There’s more on the influence of motion pictures on Middletown society throughout the book, which is marvellous window on a society, easy to read and enticing in all its detail. If you are interested in finding out more about Middletown itself and the studies that came out of it, there’s a Centre for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, Muncie, which continues the research work and has a wide range of background information and digitised resources.

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

A thousand imbeciles together in the dark

A call for papers has gone out for the 3rd Edinburgh International Film Audiences Conference, which will take place 26-27 March 2009 at the Filmhouse, Lothian Road, Edinburgh. Taking its cue from a line by Billy Wilder, the conference takes as its theme “Is the audience ever wrong? Exploring the worlds of film audiences.”

The conference is interested in all kinds of empirical research into film audiences, from any time period and any country. This is area of ever-increasing importance in film studies generally, as evidenced by a body such as the HOMER Project which is dedicated to research into cinema audiences, and particularly silent cinema, as demonstrated by such online projects as Cinema Context and the London Project, and publications from Richard Abel, Melvyn Stokes et al (some of these were listed in a recent post on The Birth of a Nation)

Here’s the full call:

“An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark – that is critical genius.” Billy Wilder made this comment about audiences but just how much do we know about what film audiences think and how often are they credited with being geniuses or more often seen as imbeciles? Empirical research into film audiences is a small but developing field and this conference continues its aim of providing a space where those involved or interested in this area can come together to share research findings and discuss future ideas. Whilst the conference will appeal primarily to academics it is not confined to them. Previous conferences have had contributions from those directly involved in the film industry and this is to be welcomed. We are very pleased to announce that the opening and closing speakers have been confirmed. The opening speaker is Professor Ian Christie, from the School of Art, Film and Visual Media, Birkbeck, University of London. He is Vice President of Europa Cinemas, an EU funded organisation which supports exhibitors throughout Europe who show European films, and a Trustee of the Independent Film Parliament. He is also a regular reviewer and broadcaster on film matters. The closing speaker is Dr Sean Perkins. He has been Research Executive at the UK Film Council since 2001. His research interests include UK and global theatrical markets, the UK video and online markets, film on television and film audiences. He has managed research projects on the impact of local cinema and a qualitative study of avid cinemagoers.

There is only one criterion for proposed papers: they should be concerned with empirical research into film audiences. The audiences can be anywhere in the world and for any genre of film. They can be historical pieces of work that explore the construction of film audiences through governmental policy or pieces that look at the construction of fans via archival material. We are happy to receive abstracts from students and new researchers as well as established researchers no matter what their background is.

The conference takes place over two days in the heart of Edinburgh. One of the main attractions for participants is that we only run single track sessions – no more difficult decisions about who to go and listen to or the awful experience of presenting to just a couple of people whilst everyone else has gone to hear the famous speaker! Everyone is guaranteed a decent audience plus 30 minutes to present their paper followed by 15 minutes of questions – and we are very proud of our reputation regarding time-keeping.

Abstracts of no more than 300 words should be submitted as virus-free MS Word or rtf attachments, to Dr Ailsa Hollinshead no later than 31st August 2008. Abstracts will be reviewed by external referees and all contributors will be notified of the outcome by 30th September 2008. Copies of the conference paper will have to be with Dr Hollinshead by mid January 2009. There will be a bursary for the best student paper, which can include undergraduates as well as postgraduates (subject to proof of status). Successful candidates will be expected to book a place within one month of their paper being accepted. Costs and application forms can be obtained from the conference website.

More information is available on the conference website, including abstracts from last year’s conference.

Movies and conduct

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Motion pictures are not understood by the present generation of adults. They are new; they make an enormous appeal to children; and they present ideas and situations which parents may not like. Consequently when parents think of the welfare of their children who are exposed to these compelling situations, they wonder about the effect of the pictures upon the ideals and behavior of the children. Do the pictures really influence children in any direction? Are their conduct, ideals, and attitudes affected by the movies? Are the scenes which are objectionable to adults understood by children, or at least by very young children? Do children eventually become sophisticated and grow superior to pictures? Are the emotions of children harmfully excited? In short, just what effect do motion pictures have upon children of different ages?

There were so many studies in the early years of cinema, so many anguished articles, doubtless so many sermons preached from pulpits, all seeking to explain the huge attraction of motion pictures among the young and trying to assess the damage done. The above paragraph neatly sums up many of the concerns that adults held – though presumably those adults who weren’t frequenting the cinema much themselves. The questions posed are reasonable enough, but they are underpinned by a fear of the young, a fear of a loss of control. Such studies end up telling us rather more about the prejudices of their authors than the motives of their subjects.

The paragraph comes from American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct, published in 1933. The book presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. Sigh. But the reason for highlighting this 1933 book here is not for its questions or its conclusions, but for its evidence. The studies undertaken included interviews with filmgoers, who were asked about their cinema-going experiences as children, and hence it provides us with a rich selection of people’s fresh memories of watching films in the silent era.

Here, for example, are young adults remembering childhood play inspired by films:

Male, 20, Jewish, white, college junior – Quite often I would band together with other youths of my age, and we would play “Cop and Robber” or “Cowboy and Indian” trying to imitate the antics of the actors we saw in the movies. We would arm ourselves with toy pistols and clubs and chase each other over streets and yards. We would climb fences and barns, imagining them to be hills and all other objects necessary to make a realistic scene. At times we would get a little girl to play with us and we would have her be the heroine. Then someone else would rescue her, as we had seen it done in the movies.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – We had a small hobby horse which was used by the hero and heroine alternately. As my cousin’s backyard was large and contained a large number of trees, we soon learned to climb these with agility, with only one or two casualties resulting a cracked arm and a sprained wrist. From these trees we would lasso the villain and his band as they rode by. We wore this plot almost threadbare and then began to use Indians as the villains. They were always cruel and painted terrifically with mud. These cruel villains usually about three would hide behind a tree about six inches in diameter. This hid them so completely that no one could see them, especially the heroine who happened to be out walking. Then the villain would fall upon her and drag her to the Indian camp about three or four feet away. By that time, of course, the dashing hero would try to make the daring rescue. Sometimes he would succeed, but at other times he would be captured. He would then make the spectacular escape with the heroine in his arms and the wild Indians at his heels. This plot was used many times with but few variations. It provided such a great amount of action that it was always a favorite.

Female, 20, white, college junior – From these pictures I received some of my ideas of beauty. I had a great desire to have curls like Mary Pickford’s and was forced to try to secure them secretly because my father forbade the curling of my hair … I got some comfort out of being “Mary Pickford” in our games, and improved my appearance with the aid of shavings from new buildings near by. I was also fond of old-fashioned clothes which I had first seen in the movies. I always loved to dress up as the old-fashioned lady, and used everything available to make my skirts stick out like a hoop skirt.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore-The first picture which stands out in my memory is “The Sheik” featuring Rudolph Valentino. I was at the impressionable and romantic age of 12 or 13 when I saw it, and I recall coming home that night and dreaming the entire picture over again; myself as the heroine being carried over the burning sands by an equally burning lover. I could feel myself being kissed in the way the Sheik had kissed the girl. I wanted to see it again, but that was forbidden; so as the next best thing my friend and I enacted the especially romantic scenes out under her mother’s rugs, which made excellent tents even though they were hung over the line for cleaning purposes. She was Rudolph and I the beautiful captive, and we followed as well as we could remember the actions of the actors.

There are some particularly rich examples of children becoming so totally immersed in re-enacting what they had seen on the screen that it led to harm:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Two peculiar events are still impressed upon my mind as directly resulting from the influence of the movies. Once we tied one of our members to an oak tree, and notwithstanding his frantic cries, proceeded with a boisterous war-dance about the victim. The struggling boy was almost strangled by the numerous coils of rope about his neck before his frenzied mother appeared to secure his release. At another time, I was compelled to walk home through the deep snow in my stocking feet because my playmates had chosen to forcibly remove my shoes and conceal them, in imitation of a humorous scene which they had witnessed at the theater on the same day.

There is more on imitation of dress, mannerisms, etiquette and modes of behaviour, and how tips from the stars might be adopted when dating:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – Then came the time when I became interested in men. I had heard older boys and girls talking about “technique” and the only way I could find out how to treat boys was through reading books and seeing movies. I had always known boys as playmates, but having reached my freshman year in high school they became no longer playmates but “dates.” I didn’t want it to be that way but it seemed inevitable. I was asked to parties and dances and friends’ homes. The boys were older and sophisticated. I felt out of place. I noticed that older girls acted differently with boys than they did when with girls alone. I didn’t know what to do.

I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my “dates” liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.

Of course, I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage, and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do.

Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette, and I decided that would be my next move. The party was at a friend’s home and I knew where her father’s cigarettes were kept. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.

There is a lot of testimony on taking love-making tips from the movies, with Valentino frequently cited as a model, as in this droll, self-mocking example:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Later Valentino. I studied his style. I realized that nature had done much less for me in the way of original equipment than she had for the gorgeous Rodolfo, but I felt that he had a certain technique that it would behoove me to emulate. I practiced with little success. My nostrils refused to dilate – some muscular incompetency that I couldn’t remedy. My eyes were incapable of shooting sparks of fiery passion that would render the fair sex helpless. I made only one concrete trial. The young lady who was trial-horse for the attempt is still dubious about my mental stability. Worse yet, she made a report of the affair to her friends. The comments that came drifting back to me left no doubt in my mind about the futility of carrying on any longer. I gave up.

And so much more. There are examples of day-dreams and fantasies, of which stars they fell in love with, what induced sorrow, what thrilled them, and memories of what frightened them. The a several memories of a film in which a gorilla with the transplanted brain of a human commits murders (presumably the Bull Montana film Go and Get It, 1920), which clearly terrified many:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – The horror-pictures and serials used to frighten me when I was a child. I remember one picture in particular I cannot even recollect the name of it but it was a newspaper story and concerned several mysterious killings which, it came out later, were committed by a huge orang-utan which had been given the brain of a man in an experiment by a doctor one of the men killed by the animal. I remember distinctly the scene which frightened me so. The ape was standing in an open window leering at his next victim who was lying in bed, a helpless invalid, rendered even more helpless by fear and horror. Of course, a newspaper reporter, the hero in the story, came in to his rescue just in time and shot the ape, but by that time I had been so thoroughly frightened that I could not sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see this ape standing in the window and as the foot of my bed was only a few feet away from an open window, unprotected by even screens, I soon decided to spend the rest of the night in my mother’s bed with her. I remember being so paralyzed with fear that I could scarcely get out of bed, but once my feet touched the floor I ran as fast as I possibly could to my mother and spent not only that night but the next one, also, with her. I do not believe I cried, but I became speechless, powerless, rigid, staring wide-eyed into the dark, and the fright did not leave me for several days.

Finally, there is evidence of lessons learned from the movies, and of prejudices either reinforced or overturned. There is much on racial stereotyping, mostly the Chinese, but also this last piece of testimony summing up much that was worst about the movies:

Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior – It seems to me that every picture picturing a Negro is just to ridicule the race. When a Negro man or woman is featured in a movie they are obliged to speak flat southern words, be superstitious, and afraid of ghosts and white men. They have to make themselves as ugly and dark as possible. The bad things are emphasized and the good characteristics left out. This is very unfair to the race. All Negroes are not alike; there are different types as in other races. Why must they be portrayed as ignorant, superstitious animals instead of decent people that are just as capable of doing great things as any other race; all they need is the chance. It is the same with other dark races besides the Negro. They are always the loser, the shrinking coward, and never the victor. It is very unjust of the white race to make every nation appear inferior compared to them.

You can take or leave the analysis that goes with the text, but the short memoirs themselves are vivid, eloquent and revealing. There is much evidence here for anyone keen to explore the social impact of cinema (particularly on the young) in the 1920s and the mysteries of spectatorship. Movies and Conduct is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (4.9MB), PDF (22MB) and TXT (542KB) formats. I’ll add it to the Bioscope Library.